The bubble battles are over. Well, Ole Miss may not yet have locked up a spot, so the Vols might be well served to hold their noses once more and cheer for the Gators--but the days of constant scoreboard watching are over. There are no bid-stealers still alive. The ACC final features one and three seeds, the A-10 one and two, and the Big Ten two and four. The closest of those teams to the bubble is probably North Carolina in the ACC--and UNC is a likely seven seed.
With yesterday's victory by Memphis, no remaining one-bid league has a team who could garner at-large consideration with a loss. And, apart from Ole Miss, there are no bubble teams still alive to make a further case. No longer will Vols fans vacillate from moment to moment between being diehard Michigan State Spartans and Temple Owls, or North Carolina Tar Heels and VCU Rams. Beyond the SEC title game, all that remains is the unveiling of the 68-team bracket in CBS' Selection Show at 6 PM Sunday.
Will it be a day of celebration for Tennessee fans, or will it be a day of sorrow? While the Vols could've sewn up a bid with a win over Alabama, 40 minutes of struggle kept them where they were going into the week: on a razor's edge. The Bracket Project tracks 77 mock brackets, 59 of which have been updated today. Tennessee appears in 27. That's 46%.
What do the biggest experts say?
Joe Lunardi, the biggest name in brackets, has flipped back and forth throughout the day, but his current bracket update (note: this may not be the most recent one used in TV broadcasts, but it is the most recent on the website) has Tennessee as the third team out, behind Virginia and Maryland. His last four in are Boise State, MTSU, Ole Miss, and La Salle.
Seth Davis of CBS has La Salle, St. Mary's, MTSU, and Ole Miss as his last teams in. Tennessee is the second out, behind UMass and ahead of Kentucky, Maryland, and Alabama.
Jerry Palm, also of CBS, has the Vols in with cushion. His last four in are St. Mary's, La Salle, Tennessee, and Ole Miss. His first out is UMass, followed by Alabama, Kentucky, and Maryland. Palm tends to the biggest on the numbers, and as such has been as bearish as anyone on the Blue Raiders' chances at the tournament.
Andy Glockner, of Sports Illustrated, has not updated a bracket since this afternoon's games, but he had Tennessee in Dayton this morning, and his first four out garnered no wins. The Vols headlined a last four in of Tennessee, La Salle, St. Mary's, and Ole Miss, and the last four out were Virginia, Kentucky, UMass, and MTSU. In response to questions on twitter late in the afternoon, he offered 65% as Tennessee's chances to make the tournament.
Of the Bracket Project's seven most reliable brackets, none have been updated after today's games, but both Brackonomics and Bracketville gave Tennessee a slight cushion after yesterday's games. Brackonomics released a last four in of St. Mary's, Tennessee, MTSU, and La Salle, with a first four out of Virginia, Ole Miss, Kentucky, and UMass.
Bracketville's last four in were Tennessee, La Salle, St. Mary's, and MTSU, and the first four out were Ole Miss, Kentucky, Alabama, and UMass.
If we expand to the Bracket Project's fifteen most reliable brackets, we gain another four data points updated this morning or this evening.
The Bracket Project's own contribution lists no first four out, but has a last four of La Salle, Tennessee, California, and Temple, with Ole Miss and St. Mary's bypassing Dayton into the round of 64.
Bracket WAG, one of just two updated Saturday evening, posts a last four in of St. Mary's, Tennessee, La Salle, and UMass and a first two out of MTSU and Ole Miss, claiming these are the only two teams with a chance at breaking into the field.
Daniel Evans, updated Saturday morning, has a last four in of St. Mary's, La Salle, Tennessee, and Kentucky. His first four out are Ole Miss, Alabama, UMass, and MTSU.
Finally, Bracketboard, which is not a single person's mock but rather an entire mock committee, posts a last four in Saturday evening of Boise State, St. Mary's, Tennessee, and MTSU and a first four out of Ole Miss, UMass, Kentucky, and Alabama. They have stated that an Ole Miss win over Florida would knock MTSU out of the field.
Of those ten brackets, we see a picture emerging. Recent bubblers Villanova and Iowa State are in the field, no questions asked. California, Temple, and Boise State, though each were mentioned in a single "last four in" are in every field and bypass Dayton in nine of ten. All three have serious flaws in their resumes, some overlooked, but any missing the field would be a shocking turn of events at this point.
Remaining are four places in the field of 68, all trips to Dayton. Vying for these four places are ten teams: St. Mary's, La Salle, Tennessee, Ole Miss, MTSU, UMass, Virginia, Kentucky, Alabama, and Maryland.
How do the Vols stack up among those ten? Alabama and Maryland appear in none of these brackets, and they lost after many of the most recent updates, so they're clearly the long shots of the group. St. Mary's, although appearing as one of the last teams in eight of those brackets, appears in all ten, so they're clear favorites. So what we really have is seven teams fighting for three places in Dayton. Let's take a look at all seven:
*La Salle. In all ten brackets, they are favorites for one of these three places, although they are the last team in two of the ten. Their resume is headlined by a home win over Butler and an away win over VCU. They are 2-4 against the top 50, 6-8 against the top 100, and have just one bad loss, to RPI #200 Central Connecticut State. Their RPI is 46 and strength of schedule 76. Finally, they are 8-7 in away/neutral games, but just 1-7 in such games against top 100 teams (win: VCU).
*Tennessee. While the Vols are in less than half of the brackets overall and are left out by the biggest name, Tennessee is in eight of our ten brackets and seem a modest favorite for the penultimate place in the tournament. The Vols' resume is headlined by home wins over Florida, Wichita State, and Missouri. They are 3-5 against the RPI top 50, 9-10 against the top 100, and have two bad losses, both to #140 Georgia. Their RPI is 59 and SOS is 58. Their away/neutral record is 7-9, but just 2-8 against the RPI top 100 (wins: UMass, Texas A&M).
*Ole Miss. The Rebels cannot be said to be a favorite for the last place in the tournament, but they can write their own destiny with a game against Florida Sunday at 1 PM. They are in five of these ten brackets but, unlike Tennessee, find themselves in more than half of the Bracket Matrix submissions. Their best wins both come against Missouri (home and neutral site). They have a 2-3 record against the top 50 and an solid 8-6 against the top 100 (this will be 2-4 and 8-7 if they are under at-large consideration tomorrow). However, they have the worst losses of this group, falling to #227 South Carolina and #231 Mississippi State. Their RPI is 50 but SOS is just 127. Their away/neutral record is 9-7 overall, 3-5 against the top 100 (wins: Missouri, Tennessee, LSU). They do have a sweep of fellow bubble team Tennessee.
*MTSU. The Blue Raiders are a co-favorite for the last spot with places in five of these ten brackets, but like Ole Miss are ahead of Tennessee in the overall Bracket Matrix field. MTSU's signature win is at home over Ole Miss, and beyond that, their resume is quantity over quality. They are 1-3 against the top 50, 1-3 against the top 100, and have bad losses to #114 FIU and #164 Arkansas State. Their RPI is 29 and SOS is 128. Their away/neutral record is 12-5, but just 0-3 against top 100 foes. Frankly, they seem an odd choice here, with winning percentage against the top 50 lower than any of the three we've considered, winning percentage against the top 100 lower than any we have or will consider, and as many or more bad losses as/than every team we've considered. However, Patrick Stevens, historically one of the most accurate bracketologists in the business, has suggested that they may get a pity bid after dominating their conference and playing a top ten non-conference schedule (even though they beat just one top 100 team on said schedule). After bad losses and schedule weakness knocked the Vols out last year despite a strong conference record, Cuonzo Martin wouldn't be happy to see a Tennessee team with three wins better than MTSU's best and no losses worse than MTSU's worst lose out to the Blue Raiders.
*Kentucky. The Wildcats are the biggest name on the list but are a long-shot, in only one of the ten mocks. Despite being ahead of Tennessee in the overall Bracket Matrix, they are behind the Vols in all ten brackets submitted by the most famous or most reliable. Kentucky sports wins over Florida and Missouri and a 3-4 top 50 record. They are just 7-9 against the top 100 and have bad losses to #109 Vanderbilt and #136 Georgia. Their RPI is 55 and SOS is 79. Their away/neutral record is 5-9, including 3-7 against top 100 opponents (wins: Ole Miss, Maryland, Texas A&M) and 0-4 since Nerlens Noel went down for the season. The Cats have no real advantages over Tennessee except for a slightly better road record that has fallen off a cliff since the Noel injury--they have the same number of good wins, the same number of bad losses, and a lesser top 100 winning percentage--but if the two are pitted against each other, a 30-point Vols win in Knoxville may come into play.
*UMass. The Minutemen are also a long-shot, only in one of ten brackets. Their best wins are at La Salle and in the A-10 tournament over Temple, but they are just 2-7 against the top 50. They are 8-9 against the top 100 and have bad losses to #139 St. Bonaventure and #142 George Washington. Their RPI is 56 and SOS is 71. Their away/neutral record is 12-7, but just 4-6 against the top 100 (wins: Temple, La Salle, Xavier, Providence). The Minutemen also have a neutral court loss to Tennessee from back in November. While the overall numbers are similar to Tennessee and Kentucky, the lack of power at the top hurts the Minutemen, as Temple and La Salle are simply not as respected as Florida and Missouri.
*Virginia. The Cavaliers are in none of the ten brackets but are Lunardi's first team out. Still a rorschach test, the Hoos have wins over Duke, North Carolina, North Carolina State, and Wisconsin, a 4-3 record against the top 50, and an 8-4 record against the top 100. However, they have seven bad losses, ranging from #116 Boston College to #318 Old Dominion. Six of the seven are against teams ranked #145 or lower in the RPI. The Hoos are also just 3-10 away from home, 2-4 against the top 100 (wins over Wisconsin and Maryland). Their RPI is 76 and SOS is 114. They did beat fellow bubble team Tennessee, but the strength at the top of their resume doesn't seem enough to combat their weakness at the bottom.
In short, while La Salle fans shouldn't feel totally safe and Kentucky and UMass fans may cling to some hope, the NCAA tournament bubble looks like it will come down to Tennessee, Ole Miss, and MTSU for the last two spots. If the committee sticks to resume, Vols fans should feel secure. If they try to reward MTSU for trying to schedule tough, dominating their conference, or passing an eye test, Knoxville gets much more nervous. Interestingly, Southern Mississippi, which has a better top 100 record than MTSU (albeit with a less shiny headlining win), the same number of bad losses, and a double-overtime heartbreaker to Memphis in their conference championship game, is off most people's radars.
We will know for sure this evening. We'll be discussing things here and likely updating final predictions as they occur, which will probably be late this afternoon. May the selection committee be ever in our favor.
Sunday afternoon update: Ole Miss wins the SEC title and gets an automatic bid. Unless the brackets we've considered have overrated St. Mary's and La Salle, it looks like it'll come down to Tennessee and MTSU for the last spot. Tennessee has more top 50 wins, more top 100 wins, a better top 50 win percentage, a better top 100 win percentage, and the same number of bad losses. To me, that case looks rock solid. To the people who matter, who knows? Sifting through all the predictions gives the impression that people see this as a dead heat.
Sunday afternoon bracket updates:
*Lunardi has Tennessee as the first out, directly behind MTSU and La Salle
*Palm has Tennessee as the last in. UMass, Alabama, and Kentucky are the first three out.
*Bracketboard has Tennessee as the last in. MTSU and Kentucky are the first out.
*Bracketville has a last four in of Boise State, Tennessee, La Salle, and St. Mary's. First four out are Kentucky, MTSU, Virginia, and Maryland.
*Bracket Project has a last four in of La Salle, Tennessee, Cal, and Temple (so someone agrees with me that Cal's resume isn't all that).
*Patrick Stevens, the most accurate prognosticator in the field, has Tennessee as his first team OUT and MTSU as the last in. He thinks the committee will reward MTSU's top ten non-conference schedule (even though they only netted one top 100 win), but he wouldn't be surprised by Tennessee, Virginia (the bizarre candidate) or UMass (the bland, inoffensive candidate) in that last spot.
*Busting the Bracket (run by Jeff Borzello from CBS) has Tennessee as the last team in, with MTSU the first team out.
*Dobbertean (our SBN bracket guy who podcasted with us Tuesday) has a last four in of Cal, La Salle, Tennessee, and St. Mary's. First four out of MTSU, UVA, Kentucky, and Southern Miss.